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This Overland Park Company Plays A Small Role In 'Nutcracker' Productions Far And Wide

Julie Denesha
After inspecting a backdrop, Michael Johnson of Kenmark Scenic Backdrops carefully refolds it before packing it up for its next Nutcracker performance.

It's Nutcracker season, and ballet dancers everywhere are preparing for the biggest performances of the year. But their productions also rely on colorful backgrounds onstage, which is where Kenmark Scenic Backdrops of downtown Overland Park comes in.

Kenmark owner Mark Short has been in the business of renting out backdrops for more than three decades. His company has an inventory of a thousand scenes — forests, old-timey towns and fantasy worlds, practically any setting a theatrical production requires. Throughout the school year, Kenmark ships backdrops to high schools and community theaters for all the major musicals.

But Nutcracker is their highest volume season by far.

“We ship them to Key West. We ship them to Maine. We have three or four in the Seattle-Tacoma area that are larger ballet companies," Short says. "We probably do ten ballet companies in California during that Nutcracker season. So every part of the United States is our territory. We ship them everywhere."

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Scrambling to find a substitute for a backdrop that is stuck in Indianapolis, warehouse and logistics manager Rick VanTuyl (left) and office manager Brandy Schiller check the shipment status on their computers.

The backdrops are made of muslin, and most were designed and hand-painted by the artists on staff.

“We’re a small part of it," said Short. "We’re not the whole thing. We’re the itsy bitsy part of the production. We just happen to be the most visual part of the production.”

Sometimes, Kenmark's warehouse crew has to inspect and repack more than 100 Nutcracker backdrops that have to ship back out the same day.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Scenic Artist Davy McClain sweeps up a sprinkling of snow that arrived on a backdrop after a weekend Nutcracker performance.

Warehouse and logistics manager Rick VanTuyl says a little production magic often finds its way into boxes that return from a show.

“We’ll open a backdrop and there will be a mountain of fake snow, or glitter will just filter out and settle around the room," VanTuyl says with a laugh. "I’ll go home at the end of the day and I’m covered with glitter. It’s just mind boggling how much glitter there is out in the world.”

He's also found other unexpected items.

“We’ve received a wig in a backdrop before. We’ve received a silver platter in a backdrop — that was exotic. All manner of bubblegum wrappers and random bits of notepaper. So it’s always like sad Christmas: We’d open up a box and something that’s not supposed to be in there at all comes tumbling out. We keep a little collection behind the counter.”

Occasionally the backdrops are damaged.

“You can always tell when somebody just flat walked right through it," VanTuyl says. "During the middle of the production, somebody missed their mark altogether made a sharp turn and bam! They came right through the netting. Which has to be just spectacular onstage.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Michael Johnson marks a ripped backdrop with tape for a later repair.

If there is damage, Davy McClain, Kenmark's on-site scenic artist, is there to help. It's his job to touch up a backdrop before it ships out for another run.

“We’ve had some tears so big, you could walk right through them," McClain says. "So we definitely have to sew them back and paint them again. You just open them up and it’s like ‘Whoah! I guess we’ll have to fix that.”

Once the backdrops are checked and repaired, they are folded and packed into a fresh shipping box. But when the FedEx truck picks them up, they are at the mercy of Mother Nature.

“Our nemesis in the Nutcracker season is the weather," says Short. "It’s a production about winter taking place during the winter and indeed we’re shipping in the middle of the winter. So it can be challenging to say the least.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Ishmael Delgado (left) and Davy McClain struggle to get an oversized backdrop into a shipping bag.

And performers are depending on them.

“It cannot be late," Short says. "That’s all there is to it. We have to get something hanging on that stage. These people have worked long and hard for their production. So we cannot let them down.”

Once the boxes are loaded and shipped, they can breathe a sigh of relief, until the next shipment arrives.

Music used in the audio version of this story: "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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